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Addiction Change Counseling Psychology

Beyond Trend

Two glass tumbers with ice and dark brown whiskey next to bottle of Ballantine's scotch whiskey laying on its side atop a wood table.

Assessing Your Readiness to Change (Even When It’s Not Fashionable)

The following post is the expressed opinion of the author and is not be used as a substitute for medical advice. If you are struggling with a substance use disorder, eating disorder, or self-harm behavior, please seek medical advice from a licensed and/or certified provider.

The other day, I found myself chatting about a subject that rubbed me all sorts of wrong: Food Ennui.

Just a few days ago, the U.S. entered its third year in the global pandemic, and all the cracks in the system are apparent. With supply chains affected, workers shifting jobs or resigning outright, and a surge of the Omicron variant triggering localized calls for the National Guard to assist in everything from teaching in classrooms to helping in the hospitals, being bored with food seems disconnected from a reality that looks more like a war zone.

And yet I am not surprised how many people casually responded in a text chat that food ennui is real, as real as the fatigue many of us are experiencing in other parts of our lives. Some of us are really feeling tired of eating the same things, yet we’re aware that there bigger fish to fry and larger fires to put out.

Like many decisions we can make about how we function, order our days, care for our family members, and meet our own needs, not all of our decisions are going to be the latest trend. Not all of our choices are filled with fun or ease. Yet avoiding change just because it goes against the current trend has its personal consequences.

You do not need New Year’s resolutions to learn to make sound decisions and create a plan for change. So what DO you need?

Readiness for Change

The first thing you need to know before you make a change, big or small, is your answer to this question, “Are you ready?”

It’s OK if you answer that you’re not sure if you are ready, or that you want to be ready but you have some hesitation. Yet I think it’s important to give yourself a chance to hear your thoughts and feelings about how ready you are to make a change in your life, and go from there.

There is no one magic pathway to determining your readiness, yet here are a few questions to ponder that will help you think about readiness and what it would take to see some real change:

  1. WHAT do I think needs to change? What will I gain or lose by this change?
  2. WHY is that change important to me?
  3. HOW have I tried to change this before, and what stopped me the last time?
  4. WHO is in my corner, even if the only support I have is myself? Is it enough, or can I find a way to get more support?

Make a Plan with Small Steps

Whenever people find out I like to run long distances, they can’t get over how far I run. “How do you even get to a place where you can run those kinds of miles?” they ask.

“Well, you start by running from your house and around the block and back.” In essence, you start with where you are: start with small steps, and then add on more over time. Small and incremental changes that can be sustained have an accumulative effect.

My answer remains fundamentally the same whether you want to start a meditation practice, learn a language, play an instrument, or get rid of processed sugar from your diet. Once you have assessed your readiness for whatever change you have chosen (and accepting it as your choice, even if you don’t like the thing you chose in the moment), you can start with small changes.

As a therapist, I get asked for help with many of the same kinds of behavioral trends that come in and out of vogue. Here are just a few:

  • stop smoking
  • lose weight >20 pounds
  • begin and progress into a fitness program
  • learn how to cook at home to eat less processed food
  • decrease or eliminate drinking alcohol* (see comment below)
  • minimize negativity and maximize action
  • increase mental resilience
  • improve sleep
  • communicate with empathy
  • stick to a hobby
  • watch less television
  • learn to meditate and relax
  • decrease mindless activities on computer or devices

If you want to try a short exercise in how to look at a change with small steps, pick something on this list of which you experience success, and imagine sharing with a close friend how you came about experiencing that success. Take each factor, and make the steps even smaller, so that each step does not have much distance between them.

Beyond Trend

On a personal note, I noticed that Social Media is flooded with memes surrounding the pandemic, fatigue, and humorous reasons to indulge in drinking alcohol, overeating, and spending money regardless of budget or means.

This is not to say that these memes didn’t exist before the pandemic, or that people should be shamed for their personal choices. I simply noticed that the amount of content around these themes appears to have risen significantly. I’ll leave that to data scientists to tell us if my observations are statistically significant!

So let me choose one of the three to talk about here as a “beyond trend” choice. What if those who decided to try a “Dry January” — that is, a month abstaining from drinking alcohol in order to increase their awareness around their relationship to alcohol and its use — wanted to extend that practice beyond the month of January and beyond the supportive trend that has become an annual event, even a badge of honor to boast about?

Well, if you went 31 days without alcohol, you already walked yourself through an analysis of your own readiness to change, taken the initiative to implement small steps of change (i.e. removing alcohol from home, or going out with friends but telling them you are not drinking alcohol for a month, having an alternative beverage choice, choosing activities that are not centered around food and beverage, etc).

Lasting changes that go beyond the trend and support of short-term changes take more planning. It may involve talking to people in your support system and your household about what you need from them to be successful, as well as what you will provide on your own (such as boundaries, limits, and choices).

If you find yourself struggling, you may want to get more support, such as joining a group of likeminded people, hiring professional help, or broadcasting your choice and your needs to a larger group beyond your immediate support system in order to hear about more similar stories. You may discover that you aren’t among the majority making that decision, but you don’t need a majority to stick to it.

You may wish to keep track of your thoughts and feelings about your choice to abstain from alcohol in a journal, reminding yourself why you are doing what you do. In the world of sobriety, the phrase, “One day at a time” helps those who have chosen a sober life to focus on getting through each day without drugs or alcohol.

You might need to turn down the volume of the Social Media memes and messages that promote lifestyle choices* that are not in line with what you are trying to accomplish. Again, it may not be on trend with what “everyone” else is doing. Turning down that volume so you can hear your own thoughts and choices can help you maintain clarity.
Ensuring your lifestyle choice does not encourage dangerous or damaging thoughts and actions is also a part of the process of change

Living a sober life has much more complexity to it than eliminating drugs and alcohol. The underlying causes of drug and alcohol addiction or use, and even its identification in the user, have been the study of philosophers, healers, and addiction specialists for centuries.

If you have chosen to reduce and/or eliminate drugs and alcohol for any reason, there is help available for ALL of the complexity.

______

* Lifestyle choices – let me clarify, a lifestyle choice can have an intersection with appropriate medical advice. I am not advocating for dropping sound medical advice in lieu of a lifestyle choice. An example of this would be using one’s insulin pump for diabetes as a means to drop weight fast, or taking on a restrictive diet at the expense of syncope, hormonal damage, and severe anxiety or depression.

Categories
Change FMLA How to Psychology Rest Sabbatical

The Value of a Sabbatical

White Toyota 4Runner in open space near red rock canyon walls. iKamper roof top tent open and ladder from tent to the ground.
My rig, affectionately named Hot/Haute Sake, became my home for Part I of my sabbatical. Learn more about what sabbaticals are all about and how to plan for one. Photo: Red Rocks Canyon campgrounds, Las Vegas Nevada, Oct. 2021.

When I first thought about taking a sabbatical in order to reflect on my 30+ years in the healthcare field, it made professional sense. It made logical sense. Everything lined up on paper. It just didn’t line up with life.

The purpose of a sabbatical is to take time away from the world of work to reflect on your accomplishments, engage in personal development and enrichment, and consider professional development in your career.

For those in the corporate world, a sabbatical has sometimes overlapped with the need to take FMLA, a form of paid leave after a tenure specified by the company. Employees use FMLA for a variety of reasons, yet often the circumstances are more urgent: physical illness, disability due to injury, recovery from a surgical procedure, or care for an ageing family member.

I have lost count of the number of applications I have helped clients submit over the years. And with each one, I wondered if and when I would someday undertake my own version of unpaid leave from all work.

When I hit that 30th year in 2020, our world plunged into a global pandemic. All thoughts of taking that well-deserved and thought-provoking sabbatical disappeared behind a mask, face shield, blue plastic gown, and nitrile gloves. I worked until I was exhausted and asked by my own doctor to take a brief break. I did, and then jumped right back into the work, working in 2021 and hoping that things would improve.

Twenty months later, I started reconsidering whether a one-month sabbatical would work. And I am not alone. Perhaps you are considering something similar.

What is a Sabbatical?
As mentioned above, a sabbatical is an extended break from school, religious duties, work, and everyday routines. Its roots are found in religious literature of the ancient Hebrew people, such as Leviticus 25, which describes a break of one year after six years of regular harvest for the land to rest, with an implication that the people were not to press themselves or the land to produce more food for the purpose of selling for profit. The harvest of the seventh year was meant to be given to those in service to it. Loose translation: land and people should take a rest every seventh year, and the laborers were to enjoy the efforts of their labor without the pressure of production.

Today, sabbaticals are more typically between two to six months in duration. Extended sabbaticals tend to be paid for the first portion and unpaid for the remainder of time; however, there are some types of extended sabbaticals that are paid because of professional development that is involved. An example of this is a company that provides paid sabbatical to allow employees to volunteer for an environmental non-profit, or for a professional to pursue an academic credential.

For the most part, sabbaticals are not simply vacations, although there may be vacation time built into it. The main idea is a change from everyday work routine that frees one up to pursue other elements of life and work that would otherwise not be possible.


Who takes sabbaticals?

There are many people who take sabbaticals from their work, and many reasons to do so:

  1. A death or imminent death in the family with a need to manage an estate of the deceased or care of a remaining family member
  2. Injury, illness, or adjustment to disability of self or a family member
  3. Work burnout, after all other means to address the burnout has failed
  4. Academic pursuit
  5. Refreshing one’s career
  6. Volunteer work

How to Take Time Off for a Sabbatical

First of all, sabbaticals take planning. As a friend once advised me, take a look at Simon Sinek’s TedX video, “Start with Why” The video can help you tap into the inspiration for you to dedicate some perspiration to planning and preparing for a sabbatical, including saving some extra money if your sabbatical involves some unpaid time off, an entire overhaul of your work life, or further education.

Part of the planning may involve contacting your HR department to go over the policies and application process for time off. Some companies have sabbatical leave baked into their hiring contracts; others have a requirement of seven years of work before you qualify for sabbatical or FMLA under certain circumstances. You’ll want to find out if your job is protected while you are away, and how your role will be covered so you don’t get pulled back in if there is a challenge or crisis during your leave of absence.

If your sabbatical requires international travel, you will want to contact the countries you’ll be traveling to, and these days, that also includes understanding the requirements of the host country regarding COVID-19 protocols when arriving and leaving the country, as well as the risks to yourself and any household members traveling with you. I suggest you conduct a risk assessment regarding travel, and how much risk you can bear.

For example, if you travelled to a country that later went into a restrictive lockdown to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks, or if you have co-morbidities that put you at risk for severe illness and the country you wish to travel faces a challenge in their hospitals to provide care and beds, you may need time to plan a more extensive care strategy.

If you are working with a tighter budget and longer period of time off, you may need to look at your expenses and cancel or pause subscription-based expenses, monthly charges such as cable and Internet if you go abroad, and consider holding off on luxury purchases. Instead, you might want to schedule those doctor and dentist visits, make sure you are up-to-date with medical prescriptions and immunizations, and think ahead through the needs of your children and pets to anticipate expenses.

See You in January 2022

As my planned sabbatical Part 2 is about to start (Part 1 was in October to early November), I’m looking forward to the remaining month of a two-month sabbatical. I’m expecting to have good news to share with the counseling community when I return.

Categories
Change Psychology Resilience Rest

Is It Too Soon?

This is an opinion piece written by the owner of the Seattle Direct Counseling website and blog.

Have you come across a question on Social Media that asks you to share positive things you have experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Before I do some research as to what other people in the field of psychology think about this question, I tuned into my own feelings. Mine are obvious, and you are free to disagree, yet I would ask you to read the entirety of this post and take a breath before you respond.

Nope. It’s too soon for me to share a list of silver linings. There are still people getting sick, still people dying, and still people grieving the loss of their loved ones because of COVID-19. There are still people who have lost their jobs or who are still bouncing back from economic hardship. There are still people getting evicted, moving because they can no longer afford their homes due to job loss, and still having difficulty making ends meet. There are still children and parents struggling to juggle in-person, remote classrooms, hybrid versions, and work-life balance. There are still essential workers from groceries to healthcare that are burned out, overworked, and traumatized by the care and servicing of sick, frightened, angry, and sometimes selfish people, all while they grieve the loss of fellow colleagues.

This is not to say that I haven’t seen or heard people experiencing many positive changes in their lives this year. Yet the question wasn’t just about positive changes. The question was about making a direct correlation between a pandemic – that has the potential to kill 20% of the population regardless of health history, decimate whole family systems with its easy transmission through secretions, and disable world economies for a number of years – with positive benefits.

I believe the question was intended to get people thinking about gratitude. The other potential meaning behind the question is what I find troubling.

I find that we’re often asked to make a list of positive outcomes when we’ve gone through a tough time. The problem is this: the tough time hasn’t ended. With the coronavirus out of control in many countries around the world as well as right here at home, it feels too soon to ask people to conjure a positive attitude or to list what good things they have experienced since the pandemic hit their respective towns and cities. It’s like asking people to diminish the real pain and hardship they have experienced, put on a smile, and move on, without getting to the real deal behind trauma and adversity.

If Not Silver Linings, What Else?

Is there something helpful to focus on besides silver linings and gratitude lists in the midst of difficult times, especially if you actually tried to develop a more positive attitude and found that to be — well, not very helpful?

If I could wish anything for you now, it would be a combination of Rest and Resilience.

What I mean by Rest is a short break from the elements of your life that may be causing insomnia, heartache, loneliness, burnout, and financial strain. If the coronavirus is out of control in your town, getting rest is complex. I understand you can’t let your guard down. Yet Rest can come in waves, from remembering to take time breathing fresh air when you can step outside and away from crowded areas, to choosing to turn off your smart devices at least an hour before bedtime so your brain can go into recovery mode.

Rest can mean snuggling with your pets and household members, singing along with a song you love, connecting with a friend via Zoom, or quietly putting together a puzzle while silencing distraction and stress. Rest can mean you give yourself a break from trying so hard to make this year’s holiday celebrations look exactly like previous years, especially if the means to do that cost you or others more than you can afford or risk.

What I mean by Rest is that if you have time off from work for the holiday, take it, and take it seriously like it meant your life. Rest. Your mind and body need it. If you must create something to do, you can invigorate your mind through the Art of Doing Nothing.

What I mean by Resilience is the capacity through a developing pathway or routine to adaptation through adversity. It involves mental and emotional toughness that can be built over time by allowing yourself to feel and experience something difficult, and then acknowledging what you did and how it felt as you got through it. It’s the acknowledgement that you weathered something uncomfortable if not downright painful, and you did not die.

Resilience can look like you buying your first couple of cloth masks at the start of the pandemic, moving through your feelings about wearing them, learning how to make your own, and giving or selling masks to others to help others. The next time you find yourself worrying about the pandemic, you may also realize you have adapted your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors – “I am concerned, I feel myself feeling anxious, I remember to put on my mask when I must leave my house”- in such a way that that you feel stronger to face the day. Over time, this might even feel easier.

Resilience can sound like learning to be more clear and direct with your words and actions, beginning with loved ones and expanding to your interactions with co-workers and community members. When you note how the choice to institute healthy boundaries around your time and energy has a payoff for you despite the fear of disappointment from others, you could be developing the necessary resilience to handle the kinds of uncomfortable emotions and thoughts that build when handling aspects of what so many of us fondly refer to as “adulting”, only it can feel like Adulting on Steroids.

At its most basic elements, Resilience involves personal growth. At its height and breadth, Resilience allows you develop something I call Relentless Forward Progress. It’s that part of us that can become more than we thought (and not to be confused with productivity), allowing even trauma, adversity, illness, and accidents to shape us. We would never wish these events on anyone, yet at the same time, the resilience that people can develop from having gone through these things can be profound. For more on what psychological resilience is, check out this link.

If making a list of how you think you’ve benefited by the pandemic coming to your door makes you feel more hopeful and upbeat, I’m not saying you should stop making that list.

What I am suggesting is that it wasn’t the pandemic itself — a virus that can kill — that should be celebrated right now. Rather, it’s your adaptive responses to it — and all kinds of adversity — that deserves cake and a happy dance.